I think that one reason people have taken up the Steele dossier as a key to Donald Trump’s election wrongdoing is that it is a relatively compact telling of events, from which a narrative may be extracted.
Most of the news coverage is of one small piece of the story at a time. The format of the articles tends to be a general statement of that small piece, perhaps with a bit of background, then a more detailed explanation of the small piece, and then more background. Space is limited, and the story is big. The cast appears to include thousands.
I find those articles largely unreadable and uninformative. Journalists seem to be having trouble too. Sally Buzbee, the executive editor of AP, said the Trump-Russia probes have “gone on so long that it’s difficult to be able to assess what in this investigation is truly very serious and what is not as serious. So that is one thing that journalists struggle with a little bit…” (video here; quote begins at 4:30) That certainly could be one reason that their articles are unreadable.
We need an overall story into which we can fit the breaking news. That will help us figure out what is truly very serious. Elliott Broidy, as far as we know now, is not as important to the story as Erik Prince, who is not as important as Donald Trump Jr. A master narrative can show where characters and subplots fit. Then the subplots can be written separately, noting the connections.
So I’m going to stick my neck out and provide a narrative. It is a bare-bones framework on which we can hang the many subplots and add in facts as they emerge. I’ve also added questions that need to be answered. I suspect that Robert Mueller has answers to some of those questions.
I invite you to suggest subplots. I’ll add them to my list and perhaps write another post in which I try to incorporate them into the narrative.
The narrative is below the fold.
The Trump Narrative
- Early Days
In the late 1980s, Trump became interested in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. He advised one participant in those negotiations to stride into the room, stick his finger in his interlocutor’s chest, shout “Fuck you,” and march out. It was during this period that he began to move toward interactions with Soviet officials and businessmen.
Questions: How did this interest develop? Who was advising Trump at this time?
- Contacts with the Soviet Union and Russia
Felix Sater and Michael Cohen were long involved with organized crime in the US and other countries, including Ukraine and other Soviet republics that became independent nations after the breakup of the Soviet Union. As an advisor to Trump, Sater set up visits to Russia for him and his children. Cohen has been Trump’s fixer and has family ties to Ukrainian organized crime.
Trump wanted to build a Trump Tower Moscow and negotiated to bring that about through the campaign and election season of 2016. Both Sater and Cohen were involved in these negotiations. Ivanka Trump was heavily involved in building a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic. Aras Agalarov and his son Emin, Russian entrepreneurs, helped Trump with Russian and other contacts. Trump mused that Vladimir Putin and he could work together to solve the world’s problems.
After his bankruptcies, American banks would not finance Trump. His financing came from foreign banks and may well have been Russian.
During this time, he also became the celebrity boss of “The Apprentice.”
Questions: What contacts did Trump have with New York organized crime? What was the overlap with organized crime in other countries? How much Russian money financed Trump? Does he still owe money to Russian organizations? What happened during his and his childrens’ visits to Russia and other former Soviet countries?
- The Campaign
Paul Manafort, who had advised the Russia-leaning candidate for the presidency of Ukraine, was Trump’s campaign manager for several months, taking no salary from the campaign although he had enormous debts. He also continued his Russian contacts. The contacts between Russian organizations and Trump campaign personnel were many: Russian money contributed to inauguration funds; Michael Flynn, during the campaign and as National Security Advisor; Donald Jr. and others in a June 9 meeting to get “dirt” on Clinton; Roger Stone and Wikileaks got the Clinton emails out; George Papadopoulos and Carter Page as foreign policy advisors to Trump. The Trump campaign managed to bend a Republican campaign plank on Ukraine toward Russia’s preferences.
Additionally, Flynn and Erik Prince, Betsy DeVos’s brother and an “informal advisor” interacted with Saudi Arabian representatives on policy matters. Their meetings included Russian participants.
The primary driver on the Russian side seems to have been a desire to get sanctions lifted, and Trump was the candidate who might do that. They also mounted a social media campaign via Facebook and Twitter that continues.
Maria Butina convinced NRA members she was a friend. She attended Trump rallies and asked him a question at one. The NRA contributed heavily to the Trump campaign.
Questions: Did Trump direct these interactions? How much did he know of the Russian social media campaign? Did Russia contribute to the NRA as a pass-through for Trump? How were the improbable “foreign policy team” chosen? Manafort?
- The Presidency
Since Trump has been President, one of the few people he has spoken no bad words about is Putin. He has said a number of times that it would be better to be friends with Russia than our current standoff, but he seems unable to develop that sort of relationship. He has not acknowledged the illegality of Russia’s occupation of Crimea nor Russia’s role in the 2016 election. After his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, he said he took Putin’s word rather than that of the American intelligence community. Photos from that meeting show him looking shaken.
He has raised questions about American support of NATO, been rude or hostile to leaders of allied nations in person and by tweet, has given orders to withdraw from Syria, has said nothing about the poisoning by Novichok in the UK, and disrupted multinational meetings.
His rhetoric divides Americans. Some of his policies, like the separation of immigrant children from their parents, are likely human rights crimes. Even when he makes a decision that arguably is right, he executes it badly.
Much of what he does damages America internally and externally. This is in line with Putin’s desire to diminish other countries so that Russia’s place is improved relative to them. However, some of the government continues to levy sanctions against Russia and other parts, like the military, behave in what can be considered a normal manner toward Russia.
Questions: Is Russia using kompromat on Trump? Why the disconnect between Trump’s Russia policy and that of other parts of the government? In terminology used about the Soviet Union, is Trump a useful idiot (unknowingly furthers Russia’s goals) or a fellow traveler (knowingly in sync with Putin)?
The biggest hole in the publicly available evidence is in connecting Trump to the activities of his family and people who work for him. But the number of Russian contacts alone makes it hard to believe he knew nothing about those contacts. The circumstantial evidence is there. Impeachment can be justified in a number of ways; it does not depend on finding direct evidence for that connection.
Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.